A group of students set out to understand the deep-rooted tension between Armenians and Turks in the wake of the continuing disputes over the 1915 Armenian genocide.
After spending 10 days traveling around the two countries, talking to politicians, journalists, academics and nongovernmental agencies, UC Irvine senior Yolanda Espiritu saw just how many roadblocks the two countries face at the state level.
But she also saw cooperation at the community level.
"It's just a positive example that Turks and Armenians can live together and work together," Espiritu said.
About a dozen UCI students visited the countries in late March with the student-led Olive Tree Initiative (OTI). It was the organization's first trip beyond Israel and Palestine since its inception in 2008.
"OTI is not an advocacy group," said Chace Warmington, OTI's communication's director. "It is just an experiential learning program that allows students to see for themselves and experience tensions and conflicts, without media bias, in a safe and secure environment."
The idea to expand the program came from UCI student Syuzanna Petroyan, an Armenian native, after she went on one of the Israel-Palestine trips, said OTI Director Daniel Wehrenfennig.
The tensions between Armenia and Turkey are the subject of the second-most lively and politically linked activism on University of California campuses, he said.
The trip was eye-opening for Espiritu, 22, who didn't know the genocide was even debated until she began preparing. She came home from the trip unsure if she can now use the word genocide.
Espiritu took in how much recognition means to Armenians while the Turks say they need time to question what happened.
The students spent more than a year putting together an itinerary, reading related books and news articles, and preparing questions for their many meetings.
When students return, they are challenged to share what they learned and create a project to explore what they experienced, Wehrenfennig said.
The trip is powerful for some — in the first year alone, half changed their minors and majors to get directly involved in the Middle East, Wehrenfennig said.
Wehrenfennig said students gain a sense that change is possible and he believes in the long term he will see OTI alumni working in politics in both the Middle East and the U.S., as well as for humanitarian organizations.
"They come back saying, 'It was this program, this moment, this empowerment, this leadership I learned through all of that work that really lead me to do [positive work],'" Wehrenfennig said.
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